Herbs are old, mysterious substances with subtle, and, in some cases, strong powers. They've been used to preserve food and to season it, to cure ills and to maintain health, to freshen air and to cast all kinds of spells.

At one time, no self-respecting gardener was without an herb garden, and every doctor was an herbalist as well. Every kitchen had its store of herbs, and a knowledge of them was second nature to most people -- something learned almost unconsciously and used regularly.

In this country, herbs reached their peak of popularity during the Revolution, when colonists refused to pay England's tax on imported tea and it became a matter of national pride to drink patriotic, or native, herb teas.

At that time herb teas were both beverages and medicines, and they were held in high esteem. Then, during the last century, a series of events led to their decline. Herbs were compounded into pills and patent medicines. Some lost their potency. Others became modern medicines. Few could compare with the flood of "magic" opiates, with their promise of instant relief, which achieved incredible popularity.

Still, there were those who kept the knowledge of herbs alive. Very often, they were country people, whom the rest of the population considered old-fashioned, perhaps quacks.

In recent years, herbs have once again found their way to favor. Perhaps this grew out of a mistrust of modern drugs, or simply a desire to take nature's goodness from close to the source; in any case, herbs are now being mass-marketed. They're available in health-food stores and supermarkets, and they're selling phenomenally.

Herbal teas make nice wintertime drinks -- they're perfect for when you just want a warm drink, without the caffeine or acids of coffee or black tea. They're light, and pleasant enough to drink just for enjoyment; but chances are they'll have a positive effect on your health too.

If you buy them, made into tea bags, in fancy boxes, they turn out to be almost as expensive as coffee; but if you grew some, gather some wild, and buy the rest loose, from health-food stores or herbalists, you'll find herb teas as economical as they are enjoyable. And you can blend your own.

Chamomile flowers make a bright yellow tea, fragrant as a field in June. It's been used since early times to settle upset stomach, increase appetite, relieve colds and bronchitis, and soothe the nerves. In Europe, it's a standard drink.

Catnip is another soothing tea, used for upset stomachs, and for its gentle tranquilizing effect. It may make cats frisky, but it makes people relax.

Melissa, or lemon balm, is a lemon-flavored mint. It's used medicinally for headaches, nausea and menstrual cramps, and it has such a good taste that it's useful for blending into any herbal brew. Mint tea has been used for chills, fevers, dizziness, colds, headaches and hysteria. It tastes good, too.

Other common culinary herbs make fragrant teas, too: Marjoram is recommended for indigestion; rosemary, with its pungent aroma, aids bronchial congestion, colds, jangled nerves and sore throats; thyme tea has been used against fevers and nightmares, and it's said to be tonic for the lungs and stomach. Sage tea is tasty, and historically famous for healing powers; according to Chaucer, knights who were wounded in battle healed themselves by drinking sage tea -- it's said to be good for most ailments, and the best remedy for stomach problems.

Comfrey has been called a cure-all, and taken to relieve everything from bronchitis to skin problems, and thought to knit broken bones as well. Elderflowers will cause sweating, and are often included in teas for colds. Imported hibiscus flowers will give any tea a bright red color and a tangy taste.

Be careful, though, in blending some of the stronger medicinal herbs, like scullcap, lobelia and foxglove. These have strong properties, some are poisonous, and they should be used only with knowledge and caution. In fact, I object to some of the commercial herbal blends because they include some of these heavy herbs without warning.

Stick to the gentle herbs, and the ones you'd use for cooking; they make tasty teas. And, when you lift the cup, and say, "To your health," you'll be speaking the truth.